United Ireland & Young Ireland Meet

Published in 1848 Rebellion, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 1998), The United Irishmen, Volume 6

When Charles Hart (1824?-98), a Young Irelander from Dublin, was inWashington in March 1849 during a tour of the United States he took theopportunity to pay a visit to Matilda Tone, the elderly widow ofTheobald Wolfe Tone. Born in Dublin on 17 June 1769, she first arrivedin America in 1795 in the company of her husband.
From May 1797until July 1816 she resided in France. Then she remarried, to aScotsman, Thomas Wilson, and the couple moved to America where shespent the remainder of her days. When Hart met her she was seventy-nineyears of age and in failing health—she was to die two weeks later, on18 March 1849. The historian of the United Irishmen, R.R. Madden, incollecting information for his magnum opus, had failed to communicatewith Mrs Tone, whose late husband’s autobiography and other writingshad produced a sensation when published in Washington in 1826.
Charles Hart’s diary of his tour (1848-9) in the Dillon papers inTrinity College, Dublin (TCD MS 6464 unfol.). A typed transcript (102pages in all) was made in 1961 by Professor Myles Dillon with a view topublication but without success; it is now in TCD MS 6906. The extractthat follows contains reminiscences by Matilda Tone recorded by Hart.They contain interesting references to Lucien and Jerome Bonaparte andthey show that her long residence in France created a more favourableimpression on her than her subsequent residence in the United States.Theobald Wolfe Tone had been introduced to Napoleon Bonaparte inDecember 1797 and met him again on several occasions. After Tone’sdeath Napoleon, as First Consul, intervened, at the prompting of hisbrother Lucien, president of the Conseil des Cinq-Cens (Council of FiveHundred), to secure Matilda a pension, which continued to be paid untilher death. In 1810 Napoleon, by then emperor, intervened again tosecure the Tones’ son William a place at the cavalry school atSaint-Germain. As Matilda Tone wrote no memoirs herself (only a fewletters from her survive), these reminiscences, though brief, are ofparticular interest. Her biography remains to be written.


Friday, Mar. 2

Afterdinner ab[out] 4 o’c[lock] got a letter from M[artin] O’F[laherty, aDublin solicitor, who went to the USA in 1848 as agent of the IrishConfederation] from N[ew] Y[ork] enclosing an introduction to Mrs Tonefrom Richard Emmet [grandson of Thomas Addis Emmet]. Went to enquireimmediately of a man whom H[orace] G[reely, founder of the New YorkTribune] said knew everything Irish—her residence which was notmentioned in the letter—he was out…

Sat, Mar. 3
Gotup pretty early, finished my letter and wrote one to M[artin]O’F[laherty]…Went at 12 to breakfast. Enquired again for Mrs Tone’sbut found the man, Mr Fitnam, a saddler, out again, but heard she livedat Georgetown. Ascertained at Coleman’s Hotel that would find outanyone at Georgetown by asking at the “Union Hotel”, Georgetown, asthere was no directory published. Went out. Owner of Union Hoteldirected me most politely. Found the house a fine one tho’ now somewhatneglected. Found that Mrs T. was not well, had a cold and was not ableto be up but very kindly expressed a wish to see me some other time.Promised to call again on Monday evening…

Monday, Mar. 4, 1849
Afterthe inauguration of Gen. Taylor as President I walked out to Georgetownhoping to see Mrs W. Tone, having left my introduction from RichardEmmet on Saturday previous when Mrs T. was not well enough to see mebut kindly expressed a wish that I should call some other day. Wasshown up to the Library, a comfortable room with bookshelves wellfilled all round. Her attendant at first expressed some fears that shewould not be able to see me but said she would try. Saw Mrs T. Hermemory failed a little sometimes about recent events—but about anythingthat happened long ago she was as clear and bright as possible. Shechatted very gaily—spoke with great feeling and affection aboutIreland—of the “College”, of Dr Whitley Stokes who [she] said was “nota friend but a brother”. Said “I lived 20 years in France and am almosta Frenchwoman”. Spoke of the Bonapartes—said “Lucien was the very bestof them”, “he was the beauty of the family”. When I said he must havebeen very handsome if he were handsomer than Napoleon—”Napoleoncertainly had a beautiful Grecian face, but Lucien was taller andbetter figure”. Told laughingly and in an animated, pleasing manner thestory of Napoleon’s sending his brother Jerome who was a boy of 15 or16 when he was First Consul to school to McDermot, an Irishman who keptthe best school then in Paris. Jerome was spoiled by the flattery ofhis companions, dressed extravagantly and ran into debt in variousways. Napoleon, hearing of this, came to the school one day, boxed hisears soundly and made him take off his fine clothes and put on veryplain coarse ones and sentenced him to wear them till he had givensatisfactory proofs of his attention to his studies by getting a goodplace in his class. This, however, did not do him much good—being thebrother of the First Consul and a “pretty boy” he was much admired andflattered, which of course ruined him. [Mrs Tone] asked frequently for“poor old Dublin” and, when I told her how much it [had] fallen fromits former prosperity, [she replied]—I am sorry, very sorry for it”.Said she lived just opposite Anne St. in Grafton Street close by Anne’schurch. Spoke of a “beautiful little theatre that used to be kept up inShip Street called the [MS BLANK]. Spoke of a man of the name of O’Hara(Kane O’H[ara], I think) who was a great beau, used to dress in the oldFrench style, wear a queue, who used to be the chief manager of thistheatre in which many amateurs used to act, her brother Withringtonamong the rest. When a child she used to be greatly afraid of thisOliver O’Hara. Said her father was an Englishman when mentioning thather grandfather Fanning was a great friend of Sir Lucius O’Brien, amember of the Irish Parliament. I said Mr Fanning was an M.D. I saidthat it was wonderful she had such strong Irish feeling—”Ah”—in rathera sad voice, “it was Tone gave it all to me”. She had shortly beforementioned his name when speaking of the College. She fully understoodwhen I mentioned that the old wall had been taken down and railings putin its place. She observed that it must be a great improvement and saidthat she knew the College well and “Tone was such a pet there. I usedafter I was married to walk constantly there and could go where Ipleased to the museum, &c., &c.” Something being said about myremaining in this country, she said “Oh, don’t expatriate yourself,don’t expatriate yourself. Here I am for 30 years in this country and Ihave never had an easy hour—longing after my native land.” Either atthis time or when speaking of Dublin she said “I often thought of goingback to see it once more but could not summon up courage and I supposeI shall never see it now”. Poor old lady, she seemed very weak, tho’she chatted and asked questions with great animation for a long time.Nothing could be more ladylike than her manner and expressions and shemust have had considerable powers of conversation. Said of S[mith]O’B[rien], &c., that they were punished for what she called “beingvirtuous”. Said of Ireland—”I have been for the best part of my life,and I can tell you I am not very young, hoping and watching forsomething to turn up for that country, but I am afraid that now thereis no hope, it’s too small”; and after a pause “do you know I sometimeswish it would grow!”. Said about the amount of arms in Ireland that itwas always exaggerated—that “it is old ground to me, I have frequentlyseen them get in estimates which always proved the real amount to bevery insignificant and to have been much exaggerated”. Said “that aboutthe year ‘98 the great obstacles were place-begging and dissensious[sic] religions and others said that the former was naturally theresult of slavery which deprived men of energy and made them lookrather to government than to their own industry and exertions”. Herface was rather square—a forehead rather broad than high tho’ quitesufficiently so—straight and still at 80 years beautifully smooth andfair—nose straight—perhaps a little thick—under lip slightlyprojecting, eyes full of light, as was her whole face—must have beenvery pretty and most attractive and ladylike in manner. Accent Irish,Dublin, and pleasing. Came away much pleased and ratheraffected—feeling for the first time some idea of what poor T.W.T.suffered for Ireland and what a heroine his wife was. Lived in fine oldhouse in Georgetown.

Christopher Woods is an archivist working on the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Further reading:

M. Elliott, Wolfe Tone, prophet of Irish independence (New Haven 1989).

Iam grateful to Mr Brendan Ó Cathaoir for drawing this extract to myattention and to the Board of Trinity College, Dublin, for permissionto publish this extract from Hart’s diary.


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